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From PhD to Tarot: embracing spirituality as a high-achieving professional woman

Behind the most devastating events lie the biggest wake-up calls.

“This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness.”

Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama

Spirituality is a two-faced god. For some, “spirituality” conveys the idea that a connection to a higher power or source (some call it God, or the Universe, but it can be called anything) provides a security blanket in an increasingly self-absorbed world. For others, “spirituality” has become an extension of that self-absorption, a promotional gimmick that sells millions of dollars in yoga pants, charcoal water and woo-woo crystals to those desperate to materialize their spiritual side by, ironically, making their spirituality a matter of consumerism. I used to think like those who saw spirituality as consumption, and for many years in my twenties, abandoned any pretense of religion, spiritual practice, or dogma. During those years, pursuing a career was my spiritual practice.

Trapped in the rat-race to be more, be better, and have professional opportunities, I shunned spirituality to my detriment, until in my late twenties, when I was forced to face the vacuity of my life experience.

Talk about a “wake-up call.”

To understand how I transformed my life from a career-obsessed academic to a tarot and meditation enthusiast, I have to rewind the clock a few years back to 2016, when I was midway into my PhD in History and Scottish Studies in Canada. I was a very successful PhD candidate, working constantly at doing research about a particular king of Scots, Malcolm III (known for killing the historical Macbeth), travelling for conferences, and writing my thesis. I was occupied always, with little downtime, weekends, or seeing my friends. “I am doing what I love,” I told myself repeatedly, as I was convinced that I had opportunities that other Latinas like me, Latinas who also grew up in a lower-income household with limited resources and no social connections, would kill to have. That I was lucky—and I was!—to research a historical figure I was obsessed with. That I was filling a gap in Scottish historiography, and this was an accomplishment. It does not matter what I told myself and what I heard from others: the constant external validation did little to validate my self-worth.

I continued to deny my need for connecting with my spirituality—who has time for that when you have a 90,000 thesis to write? Many times I told myself that spirituality was for the weak, that it was not for me. But life has a way to make us eat our thoughts, and soon enough, I was catapulted into a full-blown health crisis by a breakup and pervasive thoughts of professional worthlessness.

At the time, I was dating someone who desperately wanted children, while I’ve always known I’ve never wanted them. We had the “talk”: where is this relationship going? Inside, I panicked. I knew what this meant: that the end of the relationship was in sight. The stress and anxiety of the impending breakup overtook my body, and one morning at 3 am, I called 911 with acute gallbladder pain. I was taken into the hospital, given routine checkups and an ultrasound. Nothing was found; everything was normal. I was given an appointment for a CT scan with contrast; that same day, my boyfriend broke up with me over Skype because he wanted children badly, and I was thrown further into crisis, not only physical, but mental and emotional. I was a wreck.

Nothing was found again, but I had another bout of poor health several months later. As I was completing a thesis chapter, buried in photocopies of a medieval manuscript that I had taken in Scotland, I had a panic attack. I was near completion of my PhD without a plan, without financial security, without a job. What would become of me? What if I didn’t make it into academia? What if this thesis was a disaster? The panic attack triggered my gallbladder pain again, and for seven weeks between February and March 2017, I was bedridden with gallbladder pain. Multiple tests were done. Nothing was found until I had a gastroscopy and bile was found in my stomach. I was diagnosed by my GP with a functional GI disorder, a condition where one or more gastrointestinal organs malfunction not because they have structural deficiencies, but because extreme psychological stress alters the function of these organs. My stress levels had made my organs malfunction despite being physically healthy. I knew I did this to myself. I knew I had to change my life.

Having been raised Catholic, I tried coming back to the faith, but it did not resonate with me anymore. I began reading wellness sites and came upon Buddhist meditation and yoga. Along with monitoring from my GP and therapy sessions, I began to attend Buddhist meditation classes. Transforming poor thinking habits was very hard, but what was harder was to recognize the amount of mental and emotional damage I had subjected myself to in order to advance an academic career. I had lost my way. I had left my core values. Buddhism helped me rediscover what those values were, what I wanted from life, who I was. While I am not officially a Buddhist, the core teachings of emptiness and no-self I learned in my meditation class changed my outlook, my perspective, and my philosophy. Slowly, gently, I began reconnecting with myself.

I had suppressed a life-long fascination with spiritual endeavours. Part of this was because I did not know what spirituality was outside of Catholicism, but another part of it felt that belief in spirituality, or at least public acknowledgement of this belief, would hinder my chances at an academic career. However, while pursuing meditation and yoga I also began learning to read Tarot cards, which I love to do. Several months after successfully defending my PhD, I have recovered my strength by letting go of my prejudices about spirituality and embracing that gentle, romantic, soft side of me that wants peace and happiness for all.

How did I transform my life? I honestly believe that one cannot make any changes until one is ready to make those changes. You will know when you’re ready. You will probably have many false starts. But at some point you’ll have to become brutally honest with yourself. Do you value your life? Do you honour your values? Do you know what those values are? How do you want to feel? Spirituality is not about avoiding hardship. It is about having the faith and the bravery to face those hardship knowing that you will prevail. It is honouring the part of you that is able to overcome obstacles. I cannot tell you how to become a more spiritual person. I cannot tell you that Buddhism, yoga, Wicca, or any other religious or spiritual system will work for you. But what I can tell you is that spirituality doesn’t have to be a two-faced god: spirituality is a connection to yourself. You are the Universe. Always honour that connection.

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